THE HOLY ONES
Rabbi David Walk
This week's Torah reading begins with the momentous directive: Be holy! And rabbi types have debated ever since what exactly God meant by that. Some have suggested that it requires us to restrict ourselves from sexual promiscuity, others have said that it is a new mitzvah to refrain from even permitted behavior when it isn't moral or ethical and there are those who simply explain that it means to keep the extraordinary mitzvoth which are cataloged in this remarkable parsha. This reading contains a recap of the Ten Commandments and, perhaps the most famous Torah law of all, love your neighbor like yourself. Well, I'd like to throw my yarmulka into the ring with an interpretation I've never seen before. So, please, be gentle with your reactions. The ideas come from some of my spiritual heroes, but I think that I'm applying them in a novel way.
To get to the idea which I want to present we must go back to a verse we read on Shabbat Hagadol just before Pesach. Most years the two readings of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim are read together, but in our Jewish leap year mode they are separated this year. So, two weeks ago we read, 'Like the practice of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelt, you shall not do, and like the practice of the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you shall not do, and you shall not follow their statutes (Leviticus 18:3).' Here begins one of the great debates of our people. How we behave and dress is based upon our interpretation of this verse. We know that the ultra-orthodox understand this verse to demand that we live as differently from the others around us as we possibly can. However, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1520-1572) wrote in his gloss to the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) that this prohibition of following the ways of the Gentiles only extended to practices which were idolatrous or promiscuous (Yoreh De'ah 177:1). So, how do we view other ideas and activities from the world around us? We'll look at three opinions.
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein the great Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etziyon wrote, 'I wish to reiterate emphatically that I continue to subscribe wholeheartedly to the affirmation that, properly approached and balanced, general culture can be a genuinely ennobling and enriching force. I am talking about the spiritual value of general education, not just education for the sake of earning a living. Quite the contrary, my personal experience over the last two decades has only reinforced an awareness of the spiritual significance of 'the best that has been thought and said in the world (Matthew Arnold).' For what is it that such culture offers us?—the ability to understand, appreciate and confront our personal, communal and cosmic context, and a sensitivity to the human condition. Above all, culture instills in us a sense of the moral, psychological and metaphysical complexity of human life. A good friend of mine had a nephew who attended
Reb Aharon's father in law, of course, was Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik amongst the greatest Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century and champion of the Torah U'mada (Torah and secular knowledge) position. The Rav expressed the necessity of understanding the world around us in a totally different way. He wrote: We Jews have been burdened with a twofold task: we have to cope with the problem of a double confrontation. We think of ourselves as human beings, sharing the destiny of Adam in his general encounter with nature, and as members of a covenantal community which has preserved its identity under most unfavorable conditions. We believe we are the bearers of a double charismatic load, that of the dignity of man, and that of the sanctity of the covenantal community. In this difficult role, we are summoned by God, who revealed himself at both the level of universal creation and that of the private covenant, to undertake a double mission - the universal human and the exclusive covenantal confrontation (from The Lonely Man of Faith). We must understand this world otherwise we can't fulfill our dual obligation.
But the position I believe best expresses the point I want to make is that of Reb Aharon's partner in leading Yeshivat Har Etziyon for over forty years, Rav Yehuda Amital OB"M. He wrote: The third course upon which one might embark is neither an effort at total seclusion nor an insistence upon waging war on society. It is one that might be summed up in the term 'selective confrontation.' Selective confrontation allows one to remain aware of the world that functions outside of Judaism, and then to weigh those values against those which Judaism has to offer. In the Kabbalistic phrase, it is the process of ha'alat ha-nitzozot, the raising of the sparks of holiness inherent in all people. The process itself is one that serves to differentiate between those values which can add to the richness of a Jewish life, and those values which remain diametrically opposed to Judaism (from Jewish Values in a Changing World). Rav Amital explains that we include the positive material from the Gentile world to make it holy.
I believe that's what kedoshim tihiyu means. We create holiness. Don't translate that phrase as 'Be holy (an adjective)' rather translate it as 'Be the Holy Ones (a noun)'. We must be those who create holiness by exalting the worthy ideas and knowledge around us. Our special role in this world is based upon our ability and our responsibility to create kedusha.